Are small nuclear reactors the future of energy?

Are small nuclear reactors the future of energy?

Syrian refugees start to return home, Saudi Arabia might pump more oil, and UK PM Rishi Sunak’s foreign policy challenges.

Hi there Intriguer. The next two weeks will be thrilling for election lovers like us. Here’s the line-up: 

  • 30 October – Brazilian presidential run-off election
  • 1 November – Israeli legislative elections
  • 8 November – US midterm elections

We’ll be right here in your inboxes with our takes on the geopolitical fallout, so don’t say we don’t spoil you 😘.

Today’s briefing is a ~4.5 min read:

  • 🌱 Countdown to COP27: Can small nuclear reactors jumpstart the green energy transition?
  • ➕ Plus: Syrian refugees start to return home, Saudi Arabia might pump more oil, and UK PM…. *checks notes* Rishi Sunak’s foreign policy challenges.

‘Countdown to COP27’ is our new series in which we tackle a new climate-related issue every Friday until the start of the COP27 summit on 6 November. 

The debate over pocket-sized nuclear reactors

In brief:

  • Governments have high hopes for small modular reactors (SMRs), with Canada announcing a C$900M investment in the technology.
  • While SMRs are cheaper and supposedly safer than traditional reactors, they have yet to be tested at scale.

Credits: EnergyMonitor

Onto smaller things!

Some governments are returning to nuclear power to meet their energy needs, and are particularly interested in the sector’s newest technology: small modular reactors (SMRs).

  • This week, Canada announced it would invest C$970 million (US$700 million) to build its first SMR.

Canada is no stranger to nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants supply 15% of Canada’s electricity, and the country is the world’s third-largest uranium producer.

Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson described the SMR project as:

“[a] significant step towards the development of a non-emitting electricity grid and a prosperous net-zero future.”

What are SMRs? SMRs are mini nuclear power plants with a third of the generating capacity of traditional plants. But what they lack in power, they make up for in utility.

  • SMRs are constructed as modules (go figure), so they can be easily transported and assembled in factories.

With great enthusiasm comes great responsibility

Canada’s project will be the first commercial grid-scale SMR among G7 countries, but excitement is growing worldwide. Here’s why:

  1. SMRs are easier to build – Traditional plants can take up to seven years to become operational. Rolls-Royce (who experts call the “Rolls Royce of SMRs”) hopes to build its plants in just 500 days.
  2. They’re safer – Newer SMRs are designed with automatic safety systems. Small reactors can also operate at lower temperatures, reducing the odds of overheating.
  3. They’re cheaper – Due to their size and reduced fuel needs, SMRs are less expensive than traditional nuclear plants.
  4. They’re (potentially) greener – While SMRs potentially produce more nuclear waste than large reactors per electricity unit, manufacturer NuScale is hoping to change that by designing SMRs that run on recycled fuel from traditional nuclear reactors.

There’s always a catch

There are barely any SMRs, and certainly not enough to make a difference.

  • According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are only three operational SMRs worldwide, with another three under construction.
  • SMRs look great on paper, but they still have a lot to prove – and time isn’t really in the technology’s favour.

Some experts, like Professor M V Ramana, think governments should be throwing their money elsewhere:

“The [price] gap between nuclear power and renewables is large, and is growing larger. While nuclear costs have increased with time, the levelized cost of electricity for solar and wind have declined rapidly, and this is expected to continue over the coming decades.”

Alas, the great nuclear debate rages on.


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Africa & the Middle East

🇬🇼 Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo met Ukrainian President Zelenskey in Ukraine one day after meeting with Russian President Putin in Moscow.

  • Embalo, who chairs the Economic Community of West African States, is the first African leader to visit Ukraine since the Russo-Ukraine War began in February.
  • Many African countries have remained steadfastly neutral during the conflict, and Embalo’s visit has more to do with looming food insecurity concerns due to the conflict.

🇮🇱 Israel

Next Tuesday, Israelis will head to the polls for the fifth(!) national election in less than four years.

  • Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently on trial for corruption charges, is hoping to return to power.
  • Polls predict another draw between the pro-Netanyahu camp and the please-anyone-but-Netanyahu camp, led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Sixth time is the charm?

🇱🇧 Lebanon

Hundreds of Syrian refugees crossed the Lebanese border to return home after Lebanon authorised the first of several repatriation missions earlier this week.

  • Lebanese authorities insist the repatriations are voluntary, but human rights organisations are concerned the scheme may involve coercion.
  • Over 800,000 Syrian refugees currently live in Lebanon, mostly in refugee camps.

🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia

Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman sought to calm global markets by promising Saudi Arabia would pump more oil if the energy crisis worsened.

  • OPEC, the Saudi-led oil cartel, announced a significant output cut earlier this month, which the US government decried as a “betrayal”.
  • In response, some Saudi leaders accused Western countries of failing to adequately shore up their energy supplies.

🇹🇿 Tanzania

According to a recent study, the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) will emit 379m tonnes of C02, 25x the combined annual emissions of the two countries it connects, Uganda and Tanzania.

  • Western governments have called for EACOP construction to be halted because of human rights and environmental concerns.
  • Ugandan and Tanzanian leaders dismissed the criticism, pointing to discrepancies between African and European carbon emissions.

Rishi to the rescue?

Graphic design is our passion.

The challenge: Rishi Sunak is taking over as British Prime Minister during a remarkably turbulent time for the UK.

  • Inflation is nearly 9%, bond yields have soared, and the pound’s value has cratered.

The good news: Sunak is a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and was appointed for his economic expertise.

Annnd the bad news: ‘Dishy Rishi’ has a host of global challenges to contend with, and he has relatively little foreign policy experience. Here’s some of what’s on the docket and how he might respond:

1. 🇺🇦 Ukraine: Sunak has pledged to maintain British commitments to Ukraine and made his first foreign call to Ukrainian President Zelensky.

  • But Sunak is dead-set on fiscal responsibility, and some Ukrainians worry that UK’s defence budget cuts might cut them out.

2. 🇪🇺 EU negotiations: Officials in Brussels see Sunak as a reliable partner in resolving post-Brexit questions on regulation and Northern Ireland.

  • According to a former British diplomat: “He is a Brexiter — but he’s a technocrat and not an ideologue.”

After a series of embarrassing political crises, perhaps Sunak’s most important job will be restoring Britain’s global credibility.

And his status as the UK’s first-ever non-white Prime Minister might help break ceilings around the world:


It’s that spooky time of the year. To celebrate Halloween this weekend, we’ve brought back the Intrigue crossword – enjoy! (Answers below)

Answers: Across – 3. Banshee 4. Kraken 6. Lochness 7. Genies 9. Amazon 10. Fox Down – 1. Babadook 2. Tengu 5. Medusa 8. Wolf

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